All my life I’ve been mesmerized and intimidated by jazz guitar. I’ve wanted to play jazz so badly, but didn’t believe that it would ever be within my grasp.
Turns out the only thing that had to change was my thinking. My beliefs. “I AM a thriving, talented, successful jazz guitarist.” “I AM able to learn jazz guitar.” “I AM someone who enjoys the challenges involved in learning new things.”
Over the past week or so I assigned myself a new challenge: to learn the first solo (Miles Davis on trumpet) of Miles Davis’ “So What” on the guitar. Note for note.
This solo is about 2 minutes and 5 seconds long. When I woke up this morning, I could play all the way through 1 minute and 19 seconds of it. After about an hour and a half of practice, I can now play through 1 minute and 23 seconds of it. An important lesson for me here: it took me nearly two hours to move forward 4 seconds. The cool thing is, I ENJOY that challenge. It’s fun and exciting to think that almost 2 hours of work is needed for me to gain only 4 seconds of the solo… when I’m able to do the whole thing, it’ll mean a lot more than simply 2:05 of guitar playing… It will represent my energy, my love, and my passion… my willingness to change my mind about how I see the world… about how I view myself and my abilities.
Another interesting point: As I was learning that new 4 seconds of material, I found myself spending a lot of time on one 6-note phrase. I played it over and over. I explored different ways of playing that same phrase, and found THREE different places to play it on the neck. Now I had an interesting decision to make: WHICH way should I focus on? As I explored deeper, I found that one way seemed the most simple because I could base the entire phrase on two adjacent strings, but there was quite a horizontal reach with my pinky involved. This option kept me well within my comfort zone.
The second path took me farther down the neck, utilized three strings, and involved a whole-step upward slide with my index finger on the high “e” string. A little more challenging, but all movement was on adjacent strings, so this was still within my comfort zone.
The third path involved string skipping; reaching up with the pinky from the 2nd string to the 4th string, up 5 frets. This took me well outside my comfort zone and even made me stop a minute and wonder, “can I even DO this??” I can’t recall purposely skipping strings during a solo. Then I thought of Steve Vai. Steve Lukather. Larry Carlton. All of my heroes. What would they do? Do they skip strings while soloing? Or do they only move across adjacent strings? These guys don’t practice to success; they practice to failure. That is, they don’t simply practice something until they can do it right… they keep practicing beyond that, until it’s second nature… until the rare occasion of goofing up happens… then they practice it even more.
When I realized this was a limitation that was holding me back, I decided to practice it some more. I quickly ditched the first path. Decided the second path on the high “e” string sounded too whiny/trebley. Went with the third path. Worked on it for awhile… not sure how long, lost track of time.
Then, following my intuition, I backed up and practiced the approach and entry into this new phrase. Of course that felt completely foreign at first, but after a few tries, I began to see how the phrases connected. As I became more comfortable, I realized I was creating new neural pathways in my brain.
I’m not in a hurry. I’m not trying to get this solo down before Tuesday, or by any sort of deadline. At the same time, I do feel motivated to learn the whole thing and get it into my fingers… into my bones, so that it becomes mine. I’m practicing at least a little bit every day, even if that means just running through what I know once or twice to make sure it’s still there. When I was a young teenager at the local public swimming pool, I remember challenging myself to learn how to do a gainer off the high diving board. Not having any sort of lessons, I didn’t know how to go forward with any sort of formal process for learning this new skill. So I just ran off the end of the low diving board and threw myself into the air, trying as best I could to approximate that backwards flipping motion without cracking my head on the diving board.
After many false starts, I finally did it. Sloppy. Dangerous. But I did it. After doing that a hundred times or so, I decided to try it from the high dive. After facing down a terror that made me want to vomit, I finally did it. The interesting thing was that I was never satisfied with doing it only once. There was no victory in that for me. No. I had to prove to myself that I could do it repeatedly. So only after doing it dozens of times over the course of an entire summer would I allow myself to say, with any sort of confidence, “I can do a gainer off the high dive.”
This is sort of the same. It’s one thing to patch together the phrases of this solo and to execute them all in a row one time without making a mistake. It’s an entirely different thing to be able to visualize where my fingers will land and hear the notes in my head as I’m lying in bed. A whole different animal to be able to play it without analysis, without thinking about where the next notes will come from. Without counting beats.
Of course, this is simply one step along the path. Since everything in this realm is temporary, my ability to play this solo will diminish and disappear. The guitar I call ‘mine’, as much as I love it, will change hands. Disintegrate. Be destroyed, sooner or later. This body I call ‘mine’ will collapse and return to ashes. There’s no trophy here to be claimed with any sort of finality. Like everything we can see, hear, taste, touch, feel, or think, this experience is temporary. Finite. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
The joy for me is that, in the midst of this understanding, I can fully embrace the spirit and passion of learning this solo. Even as we know leaves on a tree will end up on the ground come autumn, in this moment they can blow wildly in the sunshine, glinting sunlight and brilliance. And understanding that we can’t make them shimmer forever, we can still appreciate their beauty in this moment.